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Dear President Trump: Dealing with the F-35 (and setting an example on other defense procurement).

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President Trump, you have a golden opportunity to employ the qualities your supporters believe you have to challenge the Pentagon and the defense aerospace industry to do something that hasn’t been done for many decades: Provide just what the US needs to defend itself on time and at a reasonable cost.  The F-35 is a mess and you know it, Mr. President.  So does Mad Dog.  The F-35 has taken far too long to develop, as costs and serious doubts about its capabilities mount.  Meanwhile, the US military air fleet ages, and costs to maintain it and keep it combat ready increase.  The F-35 has its defenders but, honestly, those defenders are people with a vested interest in keeping the program going — either military pilots who fear that without that plane, they’ll have no ride at all, or people who have been intimately involved in developing and overseeing the program through its long and tortured history.

“Here’s how to do it.  First, tell the Pentagon to define a short, clear set of specifications.  I can give you one as an example they can start from.  Tell them to do this in 90 days.  They can do it — there are really smart people who have been thinking about this a lot for a long time.”

The basic problem with the F-35 is grounded in its fundamental conception: A common airframe that serves all three of the US flying services — Air Force, Navy and Marines.  The US faced a “smart” solution to fighter procurement like this once before in notoriously “smart” Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s plan to develop a common Air Force and Navy fighter program in the 1960s.  The two services knew that their needs were very different then and successfully fought that proposal.  By the 1990s, when the F-35 program had its inception, they’d apparently forgotten all that.

“Absolutely no representatives from any contractor who wants to participate in the project should be allowed to participate in drafting these specification.  You define the first and most important specification: Each aircraft is to cost no more than $60 million.  Yes, you read that right.  $60 million.  It can be done.  Don’t let anyone tell you it can’t.”

But I won’t rehash that history here.  Instead, let me propose a straightforward solution.  Don’t totally cancel the program.  The F-35 does have some good characteristics and all three services and our allies who have committed to the program should take some of them.  The F-35B, with its short take-off and vertical landing capabilities is the only possible near-term or even intermediate-term solution for the Marines’ need to replace the rapidly-aging Harrier upon which they depend.  The stealth but especially the incredible smarts built into the basic design of the F-35 can and should be used by the Air Force and Navy in strike missions for which those qualities make it a superior weapon.

You will be told that reducing the numbers of F-35s we buy will increase their unit cost.  That is true to some extent, but at some point we have to cut our losses and do what’s best for the overall, long-term defense budget and the nation’s defense.

Both the Air Force and the Navy need a “backbone” warplane that is a fighter first, but that can do a decent job in the strike role and do it in significant numbers (which means at a reasonable cost).  (They also need a backbone generally when it comes to the defense contractors.  Give it to them.)  Both services did a good job in procuring such planes during the era of the “teen series” fighters: The F-16 for the Air Force, and the F-18 for the Navy.

Here’s how to do it.  First, tell the Pentagon to define a short, clear set of specifications.  I can give you one as an example they can start from.  Tell them to do this in 90 days.  They can do it — there are really smart people who have been thinking about this a lot for a long time.  Absolutely no representatives from any contractor who wants to participate in the project should be allowed to participate in drafting these specifications.  You define the first and most important specification: Each aircraft is to cost no more than $60 million.  Yes, you read that right.  $60 million.  It can be done.  Don’t let anyone tell you it can’t.

Second, allow any contractor who wants to participate two years to build a flying prototype at their own expense.  Two years.  And the contractors pay for it.  It can be done.  Modern rapid prototyping, materials and computer design make this possible.  Don’t let anyone tell you it doesn’t.  Making the contractors pay for their own prototypes means they won’t load it up with a lot of things it doesn’t need.  If you need real history and fact-facts to show you this is possible, check out the story of the greatest aerospace designer and engineer in American history, Lockheed’s Kelly Johnson and the story of how he built the P-38, the U-2 and the SR-71.  If the contractors squawk, tell them: “Be great like Kelly Johnson again.”

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At the end of two years, the services will conduct a fly-off competition among all the planes that show up on the appointed day.  One year later, each service picks a winner. Contracts should be signed no more than 60 days after that and should stipulate that low-rate production should begin two years later.

Again, if you have any questions about those specs, let me know.

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